Tuesday, November 05, 2013
Based on the novella by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity is the story about an insurance salesman who finds himself in a plot to kill a client for that client’s wife which then leads into all sorts of trouble. Directed by Billy Wilder with a screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is often considered one of the defining films that would create the suspense genre known as film noir. Starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. Double Indemnity is an engrossing yet stylish film from Billy Wilder.
The film is the story about an insurance salesman who meets the wife of a client about an insurance policy where she seduces him to get involved in a plot to kill her husband so she can lots of money from his insurance. Though he takes part in order to help this woman, he becomes consumed with guilt over his actions as one of his co-workers becomes suspicious of what happened to the man. It is a film that is told largely by its protagonist Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) as the film begins with him driving his car suffering from a bullet wound on his shoulder as he tells his story to his longtime friend and co-worker Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) though a Dictaphone. Neff’s narration drives the story which moves back and forth to Neff in Keyes office and the events that put Neff into total danger that involved the mysterious femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck).
The film’s screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler does have this unique narrative structure that plays into Neff’s guilt and all of the trouble he deals with in being part of a plot to kill Phyllis’ husband (Tom Powers) for some money where Neff tells Phyllis about a clause known as double indemnity which doubles the insurance money if the death is accidental. Neff and Phyllis plans on what to do as Neff is convinced that Phyllis is a victim in a loveless marriage yet things become complicated after the plot when Neff becomes guilty and Keyes looks carefully into the case. The film’s first half is about the plot while its second half is about Neff’s guilt and the idea that Phyllis may have been using him all along. Even as he learns more about Phyllis through her stepdaughter Lola (Jean Heather) who reveals something about Phyllis that makes Neff suspicious as he is also aware that Keyes is getting closer to uncovering the truth.
Part of the script’s brilliance in its storytelling is its language where it has this very stylish dialogue that not only drives the story but also play into the element of mystery. Even in Neff’s narration where this language is crucial to the storytelling as it has a certain rhythm as well. A lot of it is from the style of Raymond Chandler who infuses that sense of time but also emotion into the dialogue where it all plays into some form of melodrama but also the guilt that Neff would carry.
Wilder’s direction is definitely stylish in some respects while he also takes the time to create some simpler shots to play into the drama and the interactions between characters. A lot of which showcases an air of style in some of the scenes where the use of shadows and shades help convey a style in the look of the film. Even in the use of close-ups, two-shots, and medium shots, Wilder’s approach to framing is very succinct in the way he plays the drama and set up the suspense such as the scene in the train where Neff pretends to be Mr. Dietrichson in order to create the illusion that he fell off the train accidentally. All of which is part of the film’s first half where Neff and Phyllis set up the plot to kill her husband and drop his body on the train tracks.
That element of style in Wilder’s direction is one of the aspects of the film that is just mesmerizing to watch in not just the way Phyllis tries to charm Neff but also in the sense of romance that occurs. Yet, things get very strange in some of their meetings at a supermarket where they’re talking as if they don’t know each other. There’s also some pieces that play into the story such as Keyes’ investigation where he is essentially the film’s conscience as he knows that something isn’t right. He is someone who knows every scenario that could happen as he would become the one person in the film that would force Neff to face his crimes that would lead to a chilling climax about what he needed to do. Overall, Wilder creates a very compelling yet suspenseful film about a man who finds himself involved in a murder plot.
Cinematographer John F. Seitz does fantastic work with the film‘s stylish black-and-white photography to convey the sense of brooding atmosphere in some of the interiors including the use of shading to help maintain that tone that carries the film‘s suspense. Editor Doane Harrison does excellent work with the editing with its stylish use of dissolves as well as rhythmic cuts to help build up the air of suspense. Art directors Hans Dreier and Hal Pereira, along with set decorator Bertram C. Granger, do amazing work with the look of Neff‘s apartment as well as the home that Phyllis lives and the office that Neff works at.
Costume designer Edith Head does fabulous work with the costumes with the designs of the dresses the women characters wear. The sound work of Loren Ryder is superb for its low-key atmosphere and sound effects to play into the film‘s suspense. The film’s music by Miklos Rozsa is brilliant for its thrilling orchestral score that includes some eerie pieces to help create that air of suspense and drama as it’s one of the film’s major highlights.
The casting by Harvey Clermont is terrific for the ensemble that is created as it features some notable small roles from Richard Gaines as Neff and Keyes’ boss who thinks something isn’t right, Porter Hall as a man Neff unknowingly meets at the observation car in the train during the scheme, Tom Powers as Mr. Dietrichson, and Byron Barr as Lola’s boyfriend Nino Zachetti whom Keyes suspects might be involved. Jean Heather is wonderful as Lola Dietrichson as a young woman who dislikes her stepmother as she’s convinced that Phyllis is involved in her father’s death as Neff tries to be there for her. Edward G. Robinson is phenomenal as Barton Keyes as he is a man who knows every scenario that might happen as he’s also someone who knows that something isn’t right as Robinson has a great monologue about the way things are as he also invests in a few humorous moments as he is a major standout in the film.
Barbara Stanwyck is amazing as the smoldering femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson as this very beautiful woman who has this unique presence where she seems like someone in need. Yet, there’s also something about her that is off as it adds to the complexity of her performance. Fred MacMurray is great as Walter Neff as an insurance salesman who is manipulated into helping this woman only to get into some trouble. MacMurray has this sense of humility and darkness to his character that is very unique as he plays someone that would the typical prototype for many characters of film noir as it’s definitely one of his finest roles.
Double Indemnity is an incredible film from Billy Wilder that features remarkable performances from Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson. The film is definitely a film that is filled with a lot of intrigue and suspense as well as sense of style that would create the ideas of what would become film noir. Especially in the way it plays with narrative and cinematic language that made the film something much more thanks in parts to the contribution of Raymond Chandler. In the end, Double Indemnity is a tremendous film from Billy Wilder.
Billy Wilder Films: (Mauvaise Graine) - (The Major and the Minor) - (Five Graves to Cairo) - The Lost Weekend - (The Emperor Waltz) - (A Foreign Affair) - Sunset Boulevard - Ace in the Hole - Stalag 17 - (Sabrina) - (The Seven Year Itch) - (The Spirit of St. Louis) - (Love in the Afternoon) - (Witness for the Prosecution) - Some Like It Hot - The Apartment - (One, Two, Three) - (Irma La Douce) - (Kiss Me, Stupid) - (The Fortune Cookie) - (The Private Lives of Sherlock Holmes) - (Avanti!) - (The Front Page) - (Fedora) - (Buddy Buddy)
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